If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
This same idea is seen in “The Borderlands,” an episode of the classic TV series Outer Limits. Aired in 1960 and directed by Leslie Stevens, the episode also juxtaposes science and magic, though in ways different from the occult detective genre. The episode opens, significantly, with a séance. An old, wealthy industrialist is attempting to reach his son, who has recently died in a car accident. However, not all present are convinced of the spiritual medium, and one of the assistants calls their bluff, revealing a simple cloth-and-string rig. After the failure of the séance, a discussion ensues about the possibility of reaching the dead. The others present at the table are scientists, working on the use of modern turbine power to open a gateway to the fourth dimension. Using a simple demonstration of magnets and an introductory lecture in quantum physics, the scientists convince the industrialist to use the city’s entire power plant for a brief period of time to try to open the gateway. The caveat is that whoever goes through to the other side must also search for the industrialist’s dead son.
The bulk of the episode details the experiment. Unlike the Electric Pentacle, which in form and function remains a traditional magic circle, here the magic circle is different. In the center of the lab, a large chamber serves as the platform or portal. Around it is arranged various unnamed laboratory technology – huge magnets, electron scanners, and tape-driven computers. This “black box” is the magic circle, and its techniques are not magic but laboratory physics, its animating principle not the magical word or sign but the principle of atomic magnetism. The episode documents the experimental protocols for each phase of the experiment, as laboratory technicians recite in monotone voices instructions and data, sounding like a very different type of grimoire. At the experiment’s peak, the scientist does enter into the fourth dimension, depicted in the episode as a wonderful montage worthy of Surrealist cinema. Space and time collapse in the consciousness of the scientist, but the search for the dead is for naught. If the occult detective genre still attempted to strike a balance between science and magic, Outer Limits episodes like these make a claim for bleeding-edge science as the new occultism, and electromagnetic laboratory chambers like the one we see as the new magic circles. If the lab is the circle, then the lab experiment is the magical ritual.
The Outer Limits episode ends on a note of caution, with humanity saving the world from its own inventions. But not all modern scientific incarnations of the magic circle are so filled with optimism. We get a slightly different, more menacing picture from early 20th century writers in the “weird fiction” tradition like H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s short story “From Beyond,” published in 1934 in the pulp magazine Fantasy Fan, takes the technological magic circle in a different direction. Instead of serving as a gateway or portal to other dimensions – a function still very much within the traditional magic circle – Lovecraft’s characters construct a magic circle whose function is the dissolving of the boundary between the natural and supernatural, the four-dimensional and the other-dimensional, the world revealed and the world as hidden.
In “From Beyond,” the narrator recounts the experiments of one Crawford Tillinghast, a reclusive physicist who begins to explain his rationale as follows [EXPANDED]:
“What do we know,” he had said, “of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have. I have always believed that such strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows, and now I believe I have found a way to break down the barriers. I am not joking. Within twenty-four hours that machine near the table will generate waves acting on unrecognised sense-organs that exist in us as atrophied or rudimentary vestiges. Those waves will open up to us many vistas unknown to man, and several unknown to anything we consider organic life. We shall see that at which dogs howl in the dark, and that at which cats prick up their ears after midnight. We shall see these things, and other things which no breathing creature has yet seen. We shall overleap time, space, and dimensions, and without bodily motion peer to the bottom of creation.
(in Lovecraft’s inimitable prose, italics always indicate an epiphany of cosmic horror…). Tillinghast goes on to show the narrator a device he has constructed, set up in the center of the laboratory, which Lovecraft only describes as a “detestable electrical machine, glowing with a sickly, sinister, violet luminosity.”
Seated around the device, in the center of the lab, the narrator and Tillinghast re-enact the magic circle of Faustus and his later incarnations. When Tillinghast turns on the device, the narrator experiences an influx of color and shape. Quickly, however, the trip begins to turn sour: “At another time I felt huge animate things brushing past me and occasionally walking or drifting through by supposedly solid body.”
Finally, the narrator “sees” around him that which has always existed but which human senses forever obscure: “Foremost among the living objects were great inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony with the vibrations from the machine. They were present in loathsome profusion, and I saw to my horror that they overlapped; that they were semi-fluid and capable of passing through one another and through what we know as solids.” The horror of this “cosmic” and “preter-natural” realization is then doubled by another more tangible horror. As Tillinghast exclaims to the narrator, “Don’t move,’ he cautioned, ‘for in these rays we are able to be seen as well as to see.” Tillinghast, who by now has gone far into mad-scientist territory, begins to prophesize of “ultimate things” stealthily approaching “from beyond.”
With Lovecraft, we see several transformations to the magic circle. First, as with the Electric Pentacle, the magic circle’s function is inverted – it now serves to focus and intensify the strange, enigmatic appearance of the “hiddenness” of the world. And it does so not through traditional magic, but through the modern sorcery of science; instead of referencing alchemy or necromancy, Lovecraft’s characters use the language of optics, physics, and the fourth dimension. There is also a second transformation to the magic circle, which is that science and technology are not just used to upgrade the magic circle – they are the magic circle. This distinguishes the device in “From Beyond” from the Electric Pentacle; while the latter remains a traditional magic circle, the device in Lovecraft’s story distills the metaphysical principle of the magic circle, which is a boundary or point of mediation between two different ontological orders, two different planes of reality. Lovecraft discards the architectonics of the magic circle, but keeps the metaphysics. The device serves as nothing more than a nodal point from which the characters are able to “see” the extra-dimensional reality and the weird creatures that swim about them every day. The aim, then, of the device as a magic circle is primarily a philosophical one: rather than assuming the division between the natural and supernatural, and then utilizing the magic circle to manage or govern the boundary between them, in “From Beyond” the magic circle is used to reveal the already-existing non-separation between natural and supernatural, the “here and now” and the “beyond.”
A third and final transformation to the magic circle has to do with the disappearance of the circle itself, while its powers still remain in effect. During the story, as the characters witness the “beyond,” the device itself gradually recedes into the background as the characters can only look about in a state of horrified awe. It is as if we get the effects of the magic circle, but without the magic circle itself. Nearly all the traditional uses of the magic circle adopt the model of spectator and spectacle – inside the circle is the audience, and outside it is the dramatic action (again, this is most explicit in the film version of The Devil Rides Out). In “From Beyond,” however, we lose this separation, and there is no spectacle that we may view from inside the safety of the circle. Instead, natural and supernatural blend into a kind of ambient, atmospheric no-place, with the characters bathed in the alien ether of unknowable dimensions. The center of the circle is, then, really everywhere…and its circumference, really nowhere.
“You’re blind,” he said without turning. “Did you know know that?”
“You. Me. Everyone.” He interlocked his fingers and clenched as if in prayer, hard enough to whiten the knuckles. Only then did I notice: no cigarette.
“Vision’s mostly a lie anyway,” he continued. “We don’t really see anything except a few hi-res degrees where the eye focuses. Everything else is just peripheral blur, just— light and motion. Motion draws the focus. And your eyes jiggle all the time, did you know that, Keeton? Saccades, they’re called. Blurs the image, the movement’s way too fast for the brain to integrate so your eye just—shuts down between pauses. It only grabs these isolated freeze-frames, but your brain edits out the blanks and stitches an — an illusion of continuity into your head.”
He turned to face me. “And you know what’s really amazing? If something only moves during the gaps, your brain just—ignores it. It’s invisible.”
Cunningham shook his head. Something that sounded disturbingly like a giggle escaped his mouth.
“I’m saying saying these things can see your nerves firing from across the room, and integrate that into a crypsis strategy, and then send motor commands to act on that strategy, and then send other commands to stop the motion before your eyes come back online. All in the time it would take a mammalian nerve impulse to make it halfway from your shoulder to your elbow. These things are fast, Keeton. Way faster than we could have guessed even from that high-speed whisper line they were using. They’re bloody superconductors.”
It took a conscious effort to keep from frowning. “Is that even possible?”
“Every nerve impulse generates an electromagnetic field. That makes it detectable.”
“But Rorschach’s EM fields are so—I mean, reading the firing of a single optic nerve through all that interference—”
“It’s not interference. The fields are part of them, remember? That’s probably how they do it.”
“So they couldn’t do that here.”
“You’re not listening. The trap you set wouldn’t have caught anything like that, not unless it wanted to be caught. We didn’t grab specimens at all. We grabbed spies.”